Sectarian Review: A Manifesto

Sectarian Review Picture Logo

Well episode 1 of Sectarian Review is in the books and you can have a listen here:

The next episode will be on the broad topic of voice. In that spirit, I wrote a manifesto to open the next show with:

Sectarian Review: A Manifesto

A voice cannot exist without ears. No word ever spoken since “God said” came from nothing. They say ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we say ashes from ashes, dust from dust.

Sectarian Review is hearing.

Sectarian Review is not knowing.

Progress strives to get things right, when getting things wrong is our perfect form. In wrongness we listen and our voices struggle to rise from forward-moving machines that finish the unfinished.

Sectarian Review is not speeches.

Sectarian Review is not a pounded desk.

We will fight against the terms “mansplaining” and “feminazi,” but will not ban them.

Sectarian Review rights no wrongs.

If you say “fixed in your privilege,” we understand the privilege in being fixed.

I don’t care what you have to say,

It makes no difference anyway.

Whatever it is.

I’m against it.

Sectarian Review is Groucho Marx.

Sectarian Review is chaos.

Sectarian Review listens to the weary wisdom of yellow wallpaper.

Sectarian Review speaks back into its madness.

Sectarian Review is a voice,

not in

but to

the wilderness.


Preachin’ to the Choir

apollo with lyre


Three months into this blog, I’ve reached a strange crossroads. Looking back over the topics I cover, I see posts about teaching, religion, conspiracy theories, werewolves, and child rearing, among others. It’s a dizzying array of topics that I’m sure confuses my readers and makes it difficult to “build an audience” for my blog. In all honesty, this has bothered me too much, I think. The great blogger Bryan Daniels has inspired me to not care about numbers so much in this post on his blog, Chief of the Least.

Liberation! Wasn’t that easy?

Anyhow, as it turns out, the posts I like best are the ones that blur the distinctions between my topics. My recent post, “The Werewolf Priesthood,” is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s about werewolves, yes. But it is also about faith. And teaching. And parenting. Is my confusion clear? Where are the lines at which one topic begins and the others end?

So this is how I will approach this blog for the time being. Numbers be darned.

Psst. But seriously, one or two shares or likes on Facebook or Google+ makes a huge difference to my fragile, pathetic self-esteem! 🙂

Oh, Original Sin. You fascinate me.

End Digression

This post will hopefully be focused on and applicable to a specific audience, to be consumed and distributed as they see fit. I do hope, however, that the broader intersections are apparent as well, because they are important to me.


English: the first of the Epistles to the Colo...

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colossians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Sometimes, listening to the sermon in church pays off. I recently heard a sermon about the Epistle to the Colossians that opened my eyes to something I’d never known. Verses 15-20 of chapter 1 are apparently lyrics to a popular hymn in the proto-Christian era.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

(Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

This was a revelation to me.

The Apostle Paul’s subsequent advice column was not simply information given to instruct the intellects of his readers. Instead, it organically erupted out of an engagement with art! Paul seems to know that his readers engage with the world through means that transcend mere rational logic. In fact, I argue that the logic of religion must engage the imagination as much as the brain. It could very well be that because I happen to teach English, I find this element of Colossians more exciting than anyone else does, but, nonetheless, it struck a chord with my inner poet.

The lyrics in this little ditty are certainly pedagogical in nature and they offer an essential vision of orthodox Christian theology. Yet they are innately poetic as well. Phrases like “image of the invisible God,” and “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” are not literal, but imaginative, and they offer the human reader an entryway into the supernatural, the Divine. Theologically,  they establish a theme in the first line about Jesus springing forth into history, directly from the central God. The theme is repeated (becoming a motif!) by the use of imagery that subsequently centralizes Jesus, making him the center around which the Christian life revolves. Whether one is a believer or not (I imagine many of my readers are not), there is an aesthetically pleasing poetic structure in these words that is admirable.

Paul, being the … ahem … great prose stylist that he is … cough cough … builds his instruction, or argument, upon this poetic beauty. Thank goodness!

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

(Colossians 1:21-23 ESV)

This snappy bit of prose (wink wink) makes even less sense if the reader does not understand Jesus as central to salvation. Given the supernatural and mystical nature of this belief, it is a concept much better conceived in the poetic than it is driven home in didactic form.

I have, as I’ve alluded to in the past, severe difficulty with contemporary Christian music (and culture in general). We’ve found a way to isolate the emotional and pedagogical elements of faith, assigning the former to music and the latter to sermons. This makes for bad poetry (“Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy, wet kiss” – ick) and, in my opinion, a degraded culture. This discovery about Colossians, which was new to me, was therefore exciting. Here is a model that insists we do better.

This discovery not only has theological ramifications, it also opens up yet another intersection, that between faith and literature. I’ve posted about this particular crossroad before; if you missed it here’s the link.

As an English professor, this discovery is not only exciting, it is a relief. Maybe I’m not Jekyll and Hyde after all.

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The Buried Life

Long before it inspired a basic-cable series dedicated to MTV douchebaggery, Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem, “The Buried Life,” inspired generations to quiet introspection.

Who has not, after all, sensed that there might be something more to life? Something richer? Who has not felt bitter sadness at their inability to escape the immediate demands of life in order to pursue an unclear purpose and invisible meaning? Like generations have before me, I too have found solace and desperate inspiration in its 98 lines, and I wanted to use this forum to experience it’s wisdom once again. After all, as the poem’s speaker suggests, “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

2013-02-14 13.39.16

Upon her retirement, my beloved adviser, Dr. Judith Oster, gave me her copy of The Portable Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling. Given the nature of my dissertation, she thought it a poetically appropriate gift and it is precious to me. I love that Lionel Trilling edited it. I love that it identifies itself as “portable,” meaning that art need not be something dead and compartmentalized, but alive and living with me. But mostly, I love that my adviser, mentor, and friend passed its wisdom on to me. With it in my possession, I feel as though I’m a part of a great tradition. And as much as Arnold’s own printed words, I relish Judy’s handwritten marginalia. It captures an image of my intellectual forebear struggling for the first time with great art and great ideas. Seeing the undergraduate underlining and engaged scribbling of my great teacher makes me imagine her life and career as a classical epic, and inspires me to try and carry on her intellectual and moral work. Much of what I know of the “best that’s been thought and said,” she taught me, after all.

Arnold’s poem retains its moving power even in our distracted, immediate age. It’s able to do this because it identifies a human longing that is not bound by time or place.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life

What the speaker identifies is a human desire for meaning. Despite the claims of early Derrida and recent “advances” in science, human beings long for meaning, whether it is actually there or not. Some of us waste that desire seeking out a collection of consumable products or hedonistic frivolity to quench our thirst for meaning. Those things need not be the ends of our desires, however.

Self-absorption is not the only barrier to digging our our buried lives, however. Conversely, some expend their divine longings by assembling a life built on ostensibly good things like family, community, and religion. But these things as ends unto themselves are also inadequate. Indeed, the poem asks,

Alas, is even Love too weak

To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

So what are we to do? What is the point? The point is that there is a point. And too many people miss it.

Those who wish to confine our lives to the mathematics of particle accelerators and the pre-destination of chemistry will not agree with the transcendence this poem conceives of. But, “The Buried Life” suggests that there is something inside each of us, a “true self” that awaits discovery. The notion that the essence of our lives is arbitrary and constructed is an alien one to Arnold here. Yes, much of what we do with our time “in the world’s most crowded streets” is arbitrary and lived entirely in the “din of strife,” but this poem offers a bleak, distant hope that there is an objective beauty to be grasped and experienced. That there is a purpose each of us is born to.

Yet — and this is what can be debilitating — this quest can never be fulfilled and we are therefore Sisyphus, forever pushing that rock uphill. This is the act in which we must find our joy.

I think I must be drawn to this poem at this moment because I’ve seemingly found my calling, the life that was buried in my breast all along.

And yet.

What can explain the fact that these words resonate with me in a manner that destroys any comfort I might otherwise rest in?

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

One general critique of Arnold’s liberal humanist project is that it closes down free inquiry. It’s deference to “the best that’s been thought and said” is usually cited as an unthinking dedication to tradition. I think that this is a reductionist interpretation, if not patently false. The speaker in this poem sees life as a never ending, beautifully tragic inquiry. There is no comfortable resting on laurels. The philosophical position this poem takes is, I think, consistent with Arnold’s body of poetry and criticism, and it refutes the naive simplicity imposed upon his reputation by the dogmatists of European philosophy. If anything, Arnold provides a tortured, restless window from which to experience the world. It does not allow for confidence or privilege. It requires eternal introspection, all the while knowing that there is no depth at which the answer will be revealed. The poem states this flatly:

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

And many a man in his own breast then delves,

But deep enough, alas! None ever mines.

The Blessed Assurance that Arnold is accused of peddling is certainly not evident in these lines. This is a philosophy instead more attuned to the Romanticism of Bruce Springsteen. The ‘Burns and The Boss each find the beauty and truth of life in the Darkness on the Edge of Town. My own attraction to this poem at this moment can probably be traced to my desire to maintain touch with that landscape and the inspiring uncertainties that reside within. Only they can provide a goal worthy of my own “fire and restless force,” spent endlessly trading in my wings on some wheels. In fact, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” perfectly captures the spirit of Arnold’s poem.

This sounds rather terrifying and hopeless, I know. “The Buried Life,” however, like Springsteen’s song, also provides a flash of hope that makes the uncertain risks worth taking. Arnold writes:

Only — but this is rare —

When a beloved hand is laid in ours,

When, jaded with the rush and glare

Of the interminable hours,

Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,

When our world-deafen’d ear

Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—

Rare though it may be, I have experienced enough of this exhilaration to keep me energized for the endless journey. Like Mary in Springsteen’s great epic, my own Beloved’s hand has offered me the clear vision that reveals the Buried Life. The poem’s last three lines describe that experience:

And then he thinks he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

The brief glimpses of “the point” of my life are what exhilarate me and make me eager for my own time spent in Springsteen’s Edge of Town. I have a beloved wife and family that give me this perspective, and I also have great art. All of us have this; it is our cultural inheritance and we need only claim it. Arnold’s poem, ending as it does with this promise of vision, offers “an air of coolness,” a reason to risk excavating the Buried Life. The poem itself is a “beloved hand” that is “laid in ours.” This is what Judy gave me when she passed her book down to me. This is why we shouldn’t be so bold as to laugh off the best that’s been thought and said.

                      The Buried Life


                       Matthew Arnold

   Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

Only—but this is rare—
When a belov’ed hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Arnold's grave